In Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, what are the 5 most important things Zinn says about Columbus?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are many different points that Zinn makes in his analysis of Columbus's entry to the "New World."  The first point comes in the opening of the chapter. Zinn makes the point that Columbus's primary motivation in exploration was for conquest and power.  Zinn demonstrates this through Columbus's own writings:

They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned... . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... . They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

The description that Columbus gives regarding the Arawak reception to the Europeans reflects how Columbus recognized the opportunity for power.  This helps to illuminate Zinn's connecting point which is that Columbus should not be regarded as heroic.  He should be seen as wielding power.  Consider the language that is used in describing his interactions with indigenous people:  "ignorance," "servants," and "subjugate."  Such language reflects Zinn's point that Columbus should not be seen as heroic, but rather as a conqueror who enforced his will on other- wise peaceful and tolerant indigenous societies.  Such an idea is enhanced with further evidence of Columbus's writings that speaks of needing to "take them [indigenous people] by force."

Another point that is essential to Zinn's analysis of Columbus is the material forces that drives human action.  Zinn removes the myth of Columbus sailing "the ocean blue" because of intrinsic good.  Rather, Zinn points out that Columbus had one question that drove he and his efforts:  "Where is the gold?"  Zinn takes a socio- economic analysis towards Columbus's efforts.  Such a viewpoint is evident throughout his historical narrative.  Zinn's point is that the America "of the people, for the people, and by the people" was really for the rich and those who sought wealth. Zinn's point here is that the nation emerged as one from whence the drive for material riches supplanted all other concerns. 

After Zinn makes his point about the slaughter and genocide that should be connected with Columbus, Zinn broadens his analysis.  He questions why American History is so embedded in lionizing Columbus as a mythological figure. For Zinn, the answer is a reflection of power in the telling of history.  Zinn makes the point that the telling of American History is an exercise in political power.  He uses the traditional "textbook" view of Columbus as evidence of this:

He [Columbus] had his faults and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great-his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities-his seamanship.

Zinn's point here is to suggest that the traditional narrative of American History "buries the truth" in order to accentuate another reality, a vision that it wants its citizens, in particular its children, to openly embrace.  Zinn's point is that the traditional historical narrative in America does not deny facts.  Rather, it envelops them in political agendas.  This provides the impetus as to why Zinn engages in the scholarship that he does.  In the final point, Zinn suggests that his own study of history is not one that seeks to embrace this traditional narrative.  Zinn wishes to counter Kissinger's view of history as "the memory of states."  Rather, Zinn's point in telling history in the manner he does is to suggest that "we should not accept the histories of nations as our own."  Rather, it should be told from the point of view of those who have power and wield it against those who do not.  For Zinn, this becomes the point of history: "to not be on the side of the executioners."  His analysis of Columbus is conducted with this mentality at its forefront.

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